Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Space Coast

When most people think of Celebration, Disney World immediately comes to mind. Those who are familiar with Central Florida might also realize its close proximity to other attractions, such as Universal and Sea World.

But although the Kennedy Space Center is located out by Cocoa Beach, it's not much more than an hour's drive when traffic is light. Better yet, you can actually see the space shuttle launches right from Celebration itself.

I didn't realize that until today, when the shuttle Discovery made its long-awaited trip into space. My husband and I had a view of the fiery silver bullet right from our own little cul de sac.

It's been almost three years since the Columbia disaster, and things were a little tense because Discovery's had already been delayed. Worse yet, NASA never pinpointed the exact problem that caused the delay.

But despite the issues, it looked like Discovery was finally going to be cleared for launch so it could head out on its mission to the Internatonal Space Station. It's delivering several tons of supplies and equipment to the Station, where construction has been on hold since the grounding of the shuttle fleet after the Columbia tragedy.

My husband and I had considered heading out to Cocoa for the launch. Problem is, it's such an iffy thing. We know people who headed out on the previously scheduled launch date, only to discover that the blast-off was cancelled. They had to brave hours of traffic both ways, only to be disappointed.

I had a good feeling that it was going to happen this time, but hubby and I both had a lot of work to do. My work is somewhat flexible, but I had conference calls scheduled. My poor husband is currently buried under so much work that he's glued to his computer for 99 percent of his waking hours. Thus, our first shuttle experience would be on the home front.

Considering that we've taken 44 Disney cruises, it's ironic that not one of them has coincided with a launch. I can't even imagine how cool it would be to see the shuttle blast off from the deck of a ship. We had a couple of "close calls," but it always ended up being rescheduled.

Now, as the countdown ticked downwards, the excitement level grew. The sky was clear and the weather was perfect; as 10:30 a.m. drew near, the state of Florida was in a high state of anticipation. A few minutes before the designated time, a friend called to advise us to view the launch from an open field without a lot of trees. Since we live on a cul de sac with a big, open "croquet field" in front, we didn't have far to go.

My husband was armed with binoculars, while I anxiously clutched a mug of coffee; it was still early enough for me to require a constant caffeine infusion in order to remain conscious. I noticed other people heading outside, too; soon, they lined both sides of the street. It reminded me of the crowd that gathers to watch an event like a solar eclipse.

Hubby managed to figure out the right direction to watch, based on the position of the sun. Suddenly he yelled, "There it goes!" Sure enough, I saw a fast moving plume of white vapor, topped by a blazing cap of orange. I've watched many shuttle launches on television, but it seemed to unreal to be watching it live from my own front yard. I reminded myself that there was a crew of very brave astronaunts inside that tiny silver dot riding the plume into space.

The sound of oohs and aahs rippled down the street like a wave at a football game as the spectators all caught right of the plume. People pointed and shouted excitedly; some were even brandishing cameras and video cams. In his excitement, my husband had remembered the binoculars but had totally forgotten the digital camera. The launch happened so fast that there was no time to run in and get it, so we had to be content with "memory photos."

Thankfully, everything went according to plan (well, almost. There was some debris, and the shuttle nose managed to take out a bird; I'm sure that most of America has seen that footage a dozen times by now). I can't even imagine how heart wrenching it must be to watch a launch where there is a problem. I still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when the Challenger exploded way back in the 1986. Then, when Columbia broke up on re-entry, it was like a terrible sort of deja vu.

But thankfully Discovery is safe, and hopefully the astronauts will be able to make any needed repairs before heading back to Earth. Apparently, I will experience that right in Celebration, too. I've been told that the sonic boom is enough to rattle windows across Central Florida. Of course, I'll probably be asleep when that happens. I can just imagine waking up in a haze and thinking, "What the heck was that? Why is Disney World shooting off fireworks in the morning?"

Next time, we're going to head down to the Cocoa Beach area if at all possible. A friend here in town knows the ins and outs of avoiding the crowds and traffic, so I can rely on his guidance. It was cool enough to see the launch from a distance; I can't even imagine the awe of watching it happen up close and personal.

I often blog about how cool it is to live next door to the Mouse, with a bevy of theme parks all located within a stone's throw of Duloc Manor. I never thought living in Celebration could be any cooler. Now, watching the shuttle today, I realized that the coolness factor had just gone up several notches.

Learn more about Celebration on my website: www.celebrationinfo.com

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